Sydney Clark isn’t a dark-skinned Black woman, but her complexion isn’t as light as her mother or sister either. This distinction, however slight, is why she says she believes she was treated differently from the rest of her family. While strangers would compliment her mother or sister, they wouldn’t speak to her, merely smiling or nodding in acknowledgment, she recalls.
“It’s something that I dealt with for a long time — kind of wishing that I was whiter, so I could fit in with my family — and was trying to understand why I ended up looking like this,” says Clark. “And then it came to me that people who look like me weren’t valued as much as people who looked like them.”
Clark now runs the Mending Wall Project, an online content hub for diversity, equity, and inclusion focusing on topics such as mental health and reproductive justice, and is earning her master’s degree in public health at Tulane University. Clark says she began to process how Eurocentric beauty standards — a reference to physical characteristics such as hair type, facial features, and skin tone that are commonly associated with people of European descent and are perceived as “beautiful” — truly affected her while earning her undergraduate degree at Southern Methodist University. It was then that she says she experienced a range of microaggressions and outright aggressions. For example, people were either enamored with her natural hair, which she wore in an afro, or averse to it, she says. These experiences pushed her to deconstruct how these beauty standards and their impacts affected her mental health alongside other students of color on campus.
While the representation of Blackness in entertainment and media has grown, data suggests there’s still much room for improvement. A 2020 report from Women and Hollywood found that Black women comprised 26 percent of female characters in broadcast network programs from 2019 to 2020, up from just 12 percent in 2010 to 2011. In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter uprisings in 2020, cover models of color appeared on nearly 50 percent of 50 major magazines in 2020, a notable rise from 17.4 percent in 2014, according to the Fashion Spot’s 2020 report. And a March McKinsey report found that Black leads comprised 14 percent of lead roles on cable TV shows, up from 12.9 percent in 2018.
Entertainment is only one area where Eurocentric beauty standards are omnipresent; Black women combat these ideals in the workplace as well as in familial and romantic relationships, too. This idea that society dictates which facial features, hair textures, and body types are viewed as “more attractive,” can naturally take a toll on Black women’s self-esteem, mental health, and overall perception of themselves.
Chanté Griffin, a journalist and natural hair advocate, says she noticed people were treating her differently after she cut her hair. Growing up, she pressed and wore her long hair straight, but in 2016, she decided to cut it all off, in part because, after years of straightening it, it was difficult to transition to natural, healthier styles.
One memory that sticks out, she says, is when someone she was dating abruptly stopped complimenting her on her hair once she swapped long braids for a short, natural style, she recalls. She says she believes the flattery stopped because Eurocentric beauty standards dictate that longer hair — even longer, natural hair — is somehow “better” than short hair.
Before Africans were brought to the United States as part of the slave trade, their hairstyles were a significant part of their culture, signaling everything from their tribe to their status within their community, says Lori Tharps, author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America and Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families. But as they were brought to the New World as slaves, the Europeans shaved their heads, explains Tharps. Now, even generations after slavery ended, Black women and girls’ hair texture remains penalized in the workplace, in schools, and even at the airport.
Lori Nixon-Bethea, Ph.D., a Black licensed professional counselor based in Oakhurst, New Jersey, says she has heard from clients who are worried about how their hair is perceived at work and in their relationships. One client felt that her African American husband was displeased when she cut her hair because she thought he was attracted to her conventional look, she recalls. The hope is that women can find validation within themselves, explains Nixon-Bethea, who says she encourages her clients to use positive affirmations and identify what’s beautiful about their features. (Related: 11 Black Women Get Real About Natural Hair at Job Interviews)
When Clark was growing up, she says people would question whether she was related to her family because she had darker skin. These interactions caused her to long for lighter skin so that she could fit in with her family and adhere to the features that were more valued by society, she says.
By the early 1900s, the cosmetics industry emerged and encouraged darker-skinned people to lighten their skin tone — skin-bleaching products were commonly advertised — and straighten their natural hair. This prompted a dialogue among Black Americans about whether to reject such beauty products and embrace their natural features, or adhere to these standards as a means to survive, says Tharps.
Scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries built upon Bernier’s work and concluded that the ideal body type for white women should be slender because African women’s bodies tend to be curvier, says Strings. Researchers at the time equated the slimmer bodies of white women with the ideal female figure, she explains.
Karen Balumbu-Bennett, a Long Beach, California-based licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, who is a first-generation Congolese American, recalls her work with an educator who changed her attire to avoid being oversexualized by her preteen students and colleagues. Despite dressing in a more modest style, she still felt singled out, recalls Balumbu-Bennett.
“She realized she would get weird comments from some of her colleagues, even female ones, such as, ‘Oh, girl, you have a nice body,’ or, ‘That looks good on you,’ or, ‘I can’t get away with that, [but you can] because you’re curvy.'” shares Balumbu-Bennett.
Alongside traditional media, social media platforms perpetuate Eurocentric beauty standards, but licensed clinical social worker Sydney James says her clients are divided on whether to change their appearance to keep up with these trends, she says. Black women using these platforms see content featuring thin noses, hourglass figures, or athletic builds, and straight hair or looser curls. Continuously seeing images portrayed on social media that don’t align with their natural features can make it difficult for Black women to celebrate and validate their own beauty, explains James.
Over time, the workplace stressors associated with Eurocentric beauty standards can contribute to Black women experiencing depression, anxiety, or problems in their interpersonal relationships, according to Balumbu-Bennett. Carving out time for yourself through exercise, yoga, meditation or rest can help, she says.
And if you haven’t considered therapy, now might be the time to explore the option, says James. This can be useful for those who’ve experienced racial trauma stemming from trying to adhere to Eurocentric beauty standards in the workplace or other social circles. The possible rejection in these situations from not fitting a particular mold can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, and low self-esteem, she adds. (Related: How to Find the Best Therapist for You)
The healing process isn’t finite. Even for Black women who have found acceptance within themselves and their appearance, a TV show, social media post, or simply seeing others could set their progress toward greater self-love back, causing them to feel like they must conform to beauty standards, explains Nixon-Bethea.
That’s not to say that Black women wearing weaves and extensions, as well as makeup, always stems from a desire to appeal to mainstream culture, as hair and makeup often serve as a form of self-expression and creativity. However, the pressure to measure up to Eurocentric standards can play a role in these decisions. Black women who remain mired in the misconception that their beauty isn’t enough may try body enhancements, alter their makeup, lighten their skin, thin their noses, or wear lots of extensions, she says.
For Clark, leaning on her friends and going to therapy helps her process the influence that Eurocentric beauty standards have on her mental health and self-esteem, she says. Through therapy, she was able to understand how to find more value in herself rather than in what other people thought of her, she adds.
Griffin, who also runs an Instagram page devoted to natural hair humor, admits there have been times when she’s considered chasing an Insta-model figure to attract followers, but then she remembers how much she values her spirit and the impact of her work more than her physical appearance — a perspective she attributes to years of developing her Christian faith.
For Black women seeking Black therapists to work through these or other culturally specific issues, the options can seem limited. Just four percent of the U.S. psychology workforce are Black, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2020 figures. Having a Black therapist doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be the right fit, but having a culturally competent therapist who has a similar background or lived experiences can be a good start, says James. Seeking a therapist at all is a significant first step because it’s a recognition that you have unmet needs and want someone to facilitate the journey to better mental health, she adds.
If she could make systemic changes to undo some of the damage caused by Eurocentric beauty standards, James says she would like to see a more diverse representation of skin tones and body types in media. She’d also like to see mental health education integrated, particularly around body image issues, in public schools, and to undo dress codes that can target Black people, such as skirt length or hairstyle rules, she adds. James believes these policies perpetuate the idea that you must conform to learn, work, and exist — or face consequences.